1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

'Just an excuse'

Interview: Sabrina Pabst / db, gswSeptember 23, 2014

German intelligence reports 24 minors from the country are fighting for 'Islamic State.' The youngest is said to be 13 years old. Islamic Studies scholar and activist Jochen Müller offers a glimpse into their mindset.

An older 'IS' fighter, pictured with younger supporters
Image: Reuters

Deutsche Welle: How much of a potential danger is associated with this group?

Jochen Müller: That's difficult to say. There is of course a danger, and that's not to be underestimated. You can assume that a few receive combat training in Syria and Iraq and may travel to Germany bearing orders for terrorist attacks. That's where the security authorities must step in.

But despite the security risk, I don't see these teenagers and young adults only as a potential threat and weapons-wielding terrorists - they are also young people in distress. I'm concerned we might ignore the fact that these are people seeking answers and guidance. When they return, many will be frustrated and disillusioned and their problems will still be here. You must consider why they went to Syria or Iraq, and how to re-integrate them into German society.

The IS propaganda videos on the Internet are repulsive. Why are young people susceptible to such images?

The young people's reasons are multifaceted. We see that the young people who are radicalized to the point that they are prone to violence and would go to war often have a difficult family history. They often lack a father figure, have social and school problems, are unemployed or receive little appreciation. They seek companionship, guidance and clear answers.

I'm also speaking of the 9/11 generation, young people who are growing up in Germany at a time when Islam is increasingly questioned. That's something they must deal with, and post- 9/11, the faith is increasingly linked to violence and terrorism. For young people from migrant families, it's a search for their identity. Many other fighters are converts.

Where do they find their answers?

The families, clubs, mosques - even I, myself - lack avenues to reach the young people. Very often, they end up on the Internet, where they continue their search and find answers with the Salafists, who flood the Internet with offers. The Salafists give them simple, clear answers. Society must develop spaces where it is understood that young people can grapple with their faith - for instance, in school. Islam is a part of Germany and that includes, of course, its young people - whether they are religious or not.

Jochen Müller
Müller: Religion serves as a mere excuse to unleash aggressionImage: DW/U. Hummel

The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has already been observing the Salafist scene in Germany for years. That scene ranges from being free of violence to having affinities with terrorism. Is there a connection between Salafists and the jihadists in Iraq and Syria?

As soon as we start talking about radicalization, we always think of these 6,000 Salafists who are considered radical. I would say the bulk of the Salafists adhere to an ideology that represents a danger to democracy and its self-conception. Only a few hundred are so radicalized that they are also prepared for violence. Society has to intervene here - in schools, in youth organizations, in political education - to point out these dangers and make young people more sensitive to them.

The youngest jihadist from Germany is reportedly just 13 years old. How quickly can radicalization of this sort take place?

That is horrifying. I compare it with mass shooters who want to get rid of all of the frustration and aggression they've built up. There's also a sense in which a craving for adventure plays a role. In schools, I deal with 13-year-olds who are very close to becoming radicalized - who say they want to save their allowance to go off and wage jihad.

Their radicalization develops in widely differing ways. For some, it takes a very long time. Someone approaches them at some point, and they get involved with a community in which they grow radical. Increasingly, they look to the group as a source of approval, and it leads to more and more extreme positions. At some point, the desire to do something rather than just talk about it emerges.

With some youths, you notice that religious conviction has nothing to do with their very quick radicalization. It's more their family, social or individual stories that give them the push. Religion just represents an excuse - the possibility of putting a name to something so that they can unleash their anger.

The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution's surveillance of Twitter, Facebook and other social networks online caused an uproar a few months ago. But radicalization takes place through these social networks. Can surveillance help identify at-risk youths in the early stages?

You can only really reach the young people when there are people close to them who are tuned into the changes they're undergoing. We have to be perceptive about these sorts of developments. Then you have to have someone who's right there with them, who can get into contact with them and is able to do something. That can be a sister, a football coach or an imam.

Jochen Müller is an Islamic studies scholar. As a journalist, he spent much time in the Middle East. He is a co-founder of the ufuq.de association - which deals with youth culture, media and political education among Germany's immigrant communities.